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Oasis in Iraq: Universities flourish in Kurdistan

WED, 22 AUG 2007 15:29 | Chronicle of Higher Education

Dohuk University students
By Zvika Krieger

Erbil – No security guards stand watch at the front gate of Salahaddin University. Young women and men mingle freely in the courtyard between classes, while Sunni and Shiite Arabs and Kurds sit together in the cafeteria sipping cola. The classrooms are so packed that extra desks are pressed up against the blackboards, and final exams have to be administered in two sittings.

The campus - peaceful, bustling, and collegial - is a rare sight in Iraq, where sectarian violence has brought the higher-education system to the verge of collapse.

But Salahaddin University is in a unique place: the territory administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government. Home to the country's historically repressed four million to five million ethnic Kurds, it is an oasis of stability and tranquillity while much of the rest of Iraq burns.

After decades of neglect and suffering under Saddam Hussein, Kurdish universities find themselves the object of unexpected envy by the barely functioning higher-education institutions elsewhere in the country. Their faculty ranks have swelled with professors fleeing the secta rian violence, injecting new life into deteriorating departments. Students from across Iraq have descended on the region's six campuses, determined to earn an education without fear of violence.

But it will take more than new people to rebuild an educational system that had long been a pawn in Hussein's war against the Kurdish people. Faculty training and equipment are 30 years out of date, international donors are hesitant to become involved in a region so close to the bloodshed, and the flood of refugees is creating as many challenges as opportunities for Kurdistan's bare-bones infrastructure.

A Volunteer faculty
The streets of Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan's capital city, buzz with activity. Shoppers search its central markets looking for the latest Western imports, while construction cranes operate overhead in the rush to build new hotels and office buildings. Hotel rooms are at a premium as foreign investors flock here in pursuit of hot new investments.

It is a normalcy that has been a long time coming. In Iraq, Kurds had been subject to bombings, gassings, forced migrations, and widespread killing since the Baath Party rose to power in the 1960s. Over the course of Hussein's iron-fisted rule, more than 4,000 Kurdish villages were destroyed in an effort to quell Kurdish separatism. The remaining villages and cities were denied almost all vital infrastructure, ranging from electricity to health services.

Kurdish higher education was also a target. For many years, Salahaddin was the only university in the Kurdish region, forcing students to travel to other parts of Iraq for their education.

"This was all part of a very well-organized plan of ethnic cleansing and erasing Kurdish identity from the region," says Ali Saed Mohammed, president of the University of Sulaimaniya, which was built in 1992.

The Kurds were further punished during the Iran-Iraq war, in which many aided the Iranians who fought in Kurdish territory along the border. In 1981 Hussein moved Salahaddin University to Erbil from Sulaimaniya, which was a hotbed of anti-regime and student activism, as well as the stronghold for the Kurds' Peshmerga militia.

Many Kurdish professors left Iraq during the war. The ones who remained suffered from, among other things, the government's decision to discontinue scholarships to Kurdish academics for study abroad.

"The regime was afraid the university and its professors would become a source for opening the mentality of the Kurdish people, to strengthen their nationalist feelings," Mr. Mohammed says.

After the Kurdish uprising in 1992, which led to the establishment of the semiautonomous Kurdish regional government, Baghdad withdrew all government employees, including most of the academic staff from Salahaddin University. The new Kurdish government essentially had to build a new higher-education system from scratch. It created two more universities, at Sulaimaniya and Dohuk, that were frequently staffed with volunteers.

"I myself taught electronic-communication classes for 10 years for free," says Idris Hadi Salih, the Kurdish minister of higher education and scientific research.

Although Kurdish universities had received their independence from Baghdad, their troubles were far from over. They suffered from the embargo imposed on the country by the United Nations after the gulf war in 1991. Academic exchanges came to a standstill, resources and teaching materials quickly grew outdated, and skyrocketing inflation bankrupted most of the universities. Kurds were also prevented from using fax machines, satellite dishes, and the Internet under Hussein's regime.

The few resources they received from the United Nations' Oil for Food program did little to help the universities.

"Any of the equipment we got from them either didn't work or one part was here and another part was in a different city," says Mohammad Sadik, president of Salahaddin University. "It was deliberately made useless by the Iraqi regime to undermine our universities."

The Kurds suffered further isolation imposed by the neighboring countries of Turkey, Iran, and Syria, which were concerned that a successful Kurdish government in Iraq could incite the Kurdish minorities in their own territories.

Essentially under triple embargo -- from Baghdad, the United Nations, and Iraq's neighbors -- the Kurds were forced to rely on the few materials they could smuggle across the border.

"We couldn't even cross the border with a floppy disk," says Mr. Mohammed. "We were totally cut off, and we had almost nothing."

'People will not gamble on us'
The downfall of Hussein in 2003 and the subsequent lifting of sanctions have finally allowed the Kurds to start to build an adequate higher-education system. The relative stability of the Kurdish region has brought newfound prosperity to the area, including foreign investment in the economy, allowing the regional government to spend more money on education.

It has allocated $4-million to design a new campus for Salahaddin University -- which has an annual budget of about $47-million -- and will spend an additional $500-million on campus construction. And three more universities have been opened since the American invasion, bringing the total to six, enrolling 60,000 students and employing 4,000 academic staff across 350 departments.

But this infusion of capital has not been enough to undo the many years of hardships. "We have been isolated from the outside world for more than two decades," Mr. Salih says. "The funds we have are not close to sufficient for everything we need to accomplish."

Wrecked furniture and broken air-conditioning units line the paint-stripped hallways of the squat buildings of Salahaddin University. Its musty library, like those of most Kurdish universities, is filled with books from the 1970s and 80s, while the laboratory equipment is similarly outdated. Most Kurdish professors only have master's degrees, and many of those with Ph.D.'s studied in Iraqi universities, which, during the 1990s, were under U.N. sanction and thus deprived of access to the latest scholarly literature.

Even with those low standards for professors, Kurdish universities are chronically understaffed. This year they had to turn away 500 of the 1,000 students who had applied for master's and doctoral programs. Competitive programs like medicine are particularly taxed, with 5,000 students applying for 500 spots.

Students here acknowledge that they are being taught with outdated curriculum by underqualified professors, but most seem reluctant to complain, saying they are lucky to receive an education. And unlike their peers in the rest of Iraq, graduates often stay in Kurdistan, working to develop the economy. They speak with pride about the region's relative stability and with hope in Kurdistan's potential for the future.

Although Kurdish relations with Baghdad have greatly improved since the fall of Hussein, the dysfunctional Iraqi government has stalled much of the financing from Baghdad. According to Mr. Salih, neither of the Kurdish education ministries (one for higher education, the other for elementary and secondary education) has received any money from the World Bank or donor countries. And with a regional government forced to ration its small budget for the rebuilding of vital infrastructure, higher education is just one of many priorities.
Everyday activities for professors have become a challenge. "We don't have credit cards here, so we can't even pay to download articles and books online," says Himdad Abdul-Qahhar Muhammad, a linguistics professor at Salahaddin. "I can't even pay the registration fees for conferences unless I use one of my American friends' credit cards."

Kurdish universities have also had little success in collaborating with foreign universities. "Universities look for mutual benefit when establishing partnerships," says Mr. Mohammed, of the University of Sulaimaniya. "What can they benefit from a university in Iraq? They can't send students or staff members because of security problems, they can't do any joint research. People will not gamble on us."

Some people have even tried to take advantage of the dilapidated state of higher education in the Kurdish region. The government has shut down at least two bogus universities recently. One, started by professors from Baghdad and Diyalá, was accepting unqualified students in exchange for high tuition.

"Our students were complaining that they needed high marks to get into competitive programs, while these students just bought their way to a diploma," says Mr. Mohammed. "It was clear those professors were just in it to make money."

Another private university, in Erbil, claimed to be affiliated with a British university that "didn't even exist," Mr. Salih says. "Its certificates weren't recognized anywhere."

"We see this all over the world in countries where the government collapses," he adds. "They think that when there is an administrative gap, nobody will ask any questions."

There are a few signs of progress, however. All science courses at Kurdish universities are now taught in English. (Most other courses are taught in Kurdish or Arabic.) The government is sending more graduate students abroad to study, usually in relatively inexpensive countries, such as India. And it has spent more than $3-million to help university libraries rebuild their collections.

Still, says Mr. Sadik, even if the regional government spent all of its budget on higher education, "it wouldn't be sufficient."

Benefiting from war
The violence in the rest of Iraq has, ironically, helped Kurdish universities. According to the Ministry of Higher Education, more than 700 professors have fled to the Kurdish region in search of safety and a job.

"This is not just charity," says Mr. Mohammed, who has hired almost 300 professors at the University of Sulaimaniya from places like Baghdad and Diyalá. "We need them to fill our departments."

Academics from other parts of the country say that they have been welcomed with open arms -- a stark contrast to the experiences of Iraqi academics who fled to countries like Syria and Jordan, where many have had difficulty finding jobs and often encounter discrimination and harassment from local authorities.

"I had no idea what to expect from the Kurds," says Hussein Hafeth, a former professor of pathology at the University of Basra's medical school, "but they have been very welcoming and good to me." Dr. Hafeth left Basra after many of his former colleagues at the university were killed. He now works as a lecturer in the University of Sulaimaniya medical college, which had no pathology instructors before he arrived, and says he is paid a higher salary than he earned in Basra.

The medical college has hired 45 refugee professors in all, increasing its staff by more than 35 percent.

"Of course we're not happy about what's going on in the rest of Iraq," says Aras A. Abdulla, dean of the medical college. "But we have received tremendous benefit from having them here. We've seen a dramatic improvement in our programs, offering courses in specialties like pediatric oncology, anatomy, and even basics like medical physiology that we didn't have before."

Refugee students and professors also choose to stay in Kurdistan, even during academic breaks, mainly because it is too dangerous to return home. Iraqi professors who lived amid the sectarian violence in other parts of the country say they are amazed at how peaceful the region is.

"We went from having no life in Baghdad, where everyone was crying all day, to having an enjoyable life here, making friends, visiting the cultural centers," says Tareq Salman Al-Hadithi, who spent 20 years as a professor of topical medicine at the University of Baghdad and now teaches at Hawler Medical University, in Erbil. "Before, we had to go inside and lock the doors by 6 p.m., and now we can stay out until 2 in the morning."

He was hired almost immediately upon arriving in Erbil. His wife also got a job at the university, and his daughter was allowed to transfer there as a medical student. "Nobody treats you differently as an Arab here," he says. "They treat you, in work and in society, like a brother. Like an Iraqi."

The effort to accommodate these refugees has not been easy. Many of them come with their families, have little money, and need housing. For a region that prides itself on its stability, Kurdish security officials have had to work overtime to conduct background checks and make sure that militants are not slipping in among these refugees.

More than 2,000 students have also come into the region, most of them Kurds, but there are many Arab Sunnis and Shiites among them. Courses at some universities are now heavily overenrolled, but few students coming into the region are turned away. The ministry staff has been working until 2 a.m. every day meeting with students who bring horror stories of murdered family members and campus bombings, some waving letters containing death threats against them.

"I had been threatened on campus so many times," said Shamseddin Rasheed, a Kurd who fled from a college in Mosul and is now studying at the College of Languages at Salahaddin University. "Students would say to me, 'You are a Kurd, you are like a Jew, you work with the Americans, we are going to kill you.'"

He moved to Erbil after one his friends, a 21-year-old former translator for the U.S. Army, was killed on the Mosul institution's campus. "The classes are crowded here," he says, "but at least the Kurds welcome us."

Mr. Salih admits there was some hesitation at first when officials saw how many refugees were pouring into the region, "but the policy of the Kurdish government is to give a hand to all parts of Iraq that need us. Despite our suffering under the previous regime, we are an active part of Iraq now."

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